Recycling myths

Earth Matters

November 15, 1991|By Lynn Scarlett

IN RECENT years, numerous groups, including federal agencies, have offered advice on how Americans can be "good environmentalists." Through broadcast and print media, consumers, legislators and even children are told what products and what actions are environmentally sound. Although frequently well-intentioned, the advice is all too often based on little more than the simple-minded application of such myths as "recycling is good," "disposables are bad," "packaging is bad," "plastics are bad," etc.

In many cases the advice givers focus on only one environmental concern (such as the volume of solid waste) while ignoring all others (such as air pollution, water pollution, energy use and the use of other scarce resources).

From the perspective of the total environment, the advice is often wrong. Consumers who try to follow rules based on these myths may end up harming the environment more than if they simply ignored the environmental consequences of their behavior.

What follows are some common environmental myths exposed in a recent report published by the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis:

Myth No. 1: We are running out of landfill space. All of the garbage America will produce in the next 1,000 years could fit in a landfill that occupies less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the continental United States.

Myth No. 2: Americans are especially wasteful. When a common definition of garbage is used, American households produce only 7 percent more solid waste than the Japanese. Moreover, careful studies show that the amount of waste we generate per person may have been virtually constant over the past two decades and the amount of waste per dollar of gross national product has been falling.

Myth No. 3: Packaging is bad. Because of state-of-the-art packaging, the United States wastes less food than any part of the world except Africa, where the threat of starvation means that even rotten food is consumed. Because of packaging, we can meet our consumption needs while producing less food -- which means fewer pesticides, less pollution and less energy use. The same principle also applies to non-food packaging.

Myth No. 4: Plastics are bad. Without the use of plastics, our total use of packaging materials (measured by weight) would increase four-fold, our energy consumption would double and the garbage we dispose of would more than double.

Myth No. 5: Disposables are bad. Careful studies show that disposables are not necessarily worse than reusable or recyclable products. For example, aseptic juice boxes (which are usually disposed of, rather than recycled) have a clear edge over their alternatives by most measures. Consumers who care mainly about landfills may choose cloth diapers. But consumers who care more about air and water pollution and conserving water and energy might choose disposables, which may also be preferable on the grounds of health and convenience.

Myth No. 6: Recycling is always good. Recycling itself can cause environmental harm -- for example, more fuel consumption and more air pollution. As a result, the environmental costs of recycling may exceed any possible environmental benefits.

Myth No. 7: Nonbiodegradable products are bad. For two-thirds of the nation's landfills, (those without liners), it's the products which degrade that pose a potential environmental threat. Degradation can lead to leaching, as chemicals reach the water supply and cause a health threat to fish, wildlife and humans. The other one-third of landfills are completely sealed and allow very little degradation. For those landfills, consumer choices regarding degradability do not matter.

Myth No. 8: Recycling paper saves trees. Since most of the trees used to make paper are grown explicitly for that purpose, if we use less paper, fewer trees will be planted and grown by commercial harvesters.

Myth No. 9: We cannot safely dispose of solid waste. This was a valid concern in the past. In fact, 22 percent of Superfund sites (hazardous waste disposal areas) are former municipal landfills. But things are different today. Government regulations and new technology permit the safe disposal of solid waste -- in landfills or by waste-to-energy incineration -- without threat to human health or the environment.

Myth No. 10: We are running out of resources. Although all resources are finite, technology and markets make it possible to use resources without exhausting them. That's why the international price of virtually every raw material went down (reflecting abundance), not up (reflecting scarcity) over the past decade.

Responding to these myths, numerous states and cities within the past several years have passed laws banning or restricting the use of consumer products.

Rather than adopt the command and control approach to solid waste based on myths, we should rely on markets. Even though the cost of solid waste disposal is soaring in many cities and states, consumers are largely insulated from the costs of their own behavior. In two-thirds of U.S. cities, households face no charge for garbage disposal or a charge correlated to the HTC amount of waste they generate.

If people faced real prices for the garbage they disposed of, they would then bear the full cost of their own behavior. Then markets, rather than politicians, could be relied upon to find innovative, efficient solutions to solid waste problems.

Lynn Scarlett is vice president for research at the Reason Foundation.

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